Could an Orthodox Patriarch Mediate Between East and West?
The divide between East and West couldn’t be greater.
Culture, religion, political and even economic divisions exacerbate what are enormous pressures in a smaller world. The haves want to warn the have nots of material and environmental excesses and the have nots are demanding their fair share. They believe they have been deliberately deprived by the haves, and make little attempt to his their contempt for those they see as trying to ‘keep them down’.
There is one cultural entity which spans both east and west. The Turkish Orthodox Church as been straddling not just East and West, but has been a fixture in the Islamic culture of Turkey and beyond as well.
There are few if any, respected figures like the Eastern Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew who can can reach across the divide.
Maybe it’s time we took advantage of his unique position and capabilities to defuse growing tensions in a rapidly changing world.
My meeting took many weeks and some string-pulling to arrange. It is not an interview, as such, insists Father Nephon, a Patriarchal archimandrite, or senior abbot, but an ‘audience’. I feel slightly daunted. Both the Dalai Lama and the Pope are known as ‘His Holiness’, but Bartholomew I, 270th Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and spiritual leader of some 300 million Eastern Orthodox Christians worldwide, is ‘His All-Holiness’. There are other ancient Patriarchs in the Eastern Church, in Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria, but he is ‘first among equals’.
I’m following in the footsteps of George Bowen, my great-grandfather, who visited the Ecumenical Patriarch in 1848 while researching the first guidebook to modern Greece. Bowen, a Hellenophile but also an admirer of the Ottoman pashas, wondered if the time would come when Greece would reclaim its former capital at Constantinople — something that then seemed a possibility. However, history has dictated otherwise, and after decades of what Turkey’s dwindling ethnic Greek minority describes as sustained persecution, the Patriarchate in Istanbul — the holiest centre of the Eastern Orthodox Church — is today in danger of extinction.
The Patriarchate shelters within a walled enclave in the traditionally Greek district of Fener, north-west of the historic centre of old Constantinople. In Bowen’s day, Fener was home to Greeks who amassed fortunes working for the sultans and in banking and trade. Then, this cosmopolitan Ottoman city — straddling the two continents of Europe and Asia — was noisy with Turkish, Greek, Ladino, Armenian, Arabic and a variety of Levantine voices, while churches co-existed alongside synagogues and mosques. Now, however, Turkey’s orientation is shifting eastward, and nationalism, a potent but largely secular force that drove modernisation in Turkey for more than a century, is taking a decidedly Islamist turn. Tolerance is narrowing. Greeks, departing in huge numbers, have abandoned entire streets of Fener to Anatolian squatters, leaving the Partiarchate a beleaguered Christian island. Not that its high stone walls guarantee protection: in 1997 a grenade was hurled into the citadel and a deacon lost his arm.